Denali National Park
We arrived at Denali for the second time to overcast skies with the mountains surrounding the visitor centre shrouded in cloud. This looked very much like the last time we were here, a couple of weeks ago, but at least without the rain.
The first thing we did was check out the weather forecast for the next couple of days. It was for 40% chance of rain the next day and only 10% the day after – around these parts it doesn’t get much better than this – so we set about arranging to go for an overnight hike in the park.
Denali is different to most US National Parks in that there are no trails. Any hikers must forge their own trails. The only road through the park is closed to private vehicles and you must take a bus along it which allows you to jump off at any stage to go hiking. However the freedom from trails comes at a price which is that Denali is the most regulated of the parks we have been to. In order to go for an overnight hike there is a process you must go through.
1) Go to the Backcountry Office to obtain a permit.
This sounds easy but Denali is divided into 87 Units each of which has a limit to the number of campers allowed each night (most seem to be about 6). On average the more accessible units are around 20K Acres or so. So you have to choose a Unit for your stay which has availability on the night you want.
Once you have chosen your unit you have to fill out an application form, watch a 30 minute video on backcountry safety and then attend a safety talk by a ranger. At the safety talk you are given a BRFC (Bear Resistant Food Canister), a mini-barrel, which you have to store your food in while in the backcountry to prevent any bears being able to get at it.
The one plus side of this process is that the backcountry permit is free.
2) Pay for Access to Park
You can pay for a seven day park access pass which costs $20 or you can use an Annual Inter-agency National Park Pass which costs $80 which can be used in any US National Park. We chose the Annual Pass because we will be visiting a number of US National Parks. These costs are per couple.
Annoyingly only the visitor centre sells the annual pass and this is around a mile and a half from the Backcountry office so we had to pop in the Beast and drive there – then drive back to the Wilderness Access Centre – next to the Backcountry Office.
3) Book onto a Bus
At the Wilderness Access centre you book tickets on the buses into the park. There are basically three types of bus – Tour buses where people stay on all day and do a tour – full of oldies, Shuttle Buses which take people into the park for day trips and day hikes (although a lot of people sit on the bus for the whole journey there and back as a cheaper alternative to the tours) and the Camper Buses which take people into the Park who are camping (these have more room for gear).
We booked onto a camper bus at a cost of $31.50 each leaving at 7am the next morning.
That night we stayed in the Riley Creek Campground which is just in the Park by the entrance for the princely sum of $28 for a fairly basic campsite. We spent the evening packing for our night away – a stressful time for Sarah as she has never spent a night under canvas before.
In the morning we got up bright and early to get the camper bus and still managed to have to run for it with our full packs on – we made it with seconds to spare though. The camper bus itself is an old school bus and not that comfortable. It takes around 6 hours to drive the 90 mile road – and can be longer because the bus stops for wildlife.
We had chosen to Camp in Unit 8 which is the Polychrome Pass area of the Park. This is around 50 miles along the road and took us around 2.5 hours. We saw a lot of wildlife on the bus – a moose and calf, 3 grizzly bears, snowshoe hare and Caribou. Most of it was at quite a distance though.
We were dropped off the bus where a small stream flowed down away from the road and we initially walked down the rocky bed of this stream. However we wanted to head for the mountains so soon had to walk across some Tundra. This started off pretty firm with a lot of animal trails for us to follow but soon became much spongier and the brush thicker – not surprisingly the animals seemed to avoid this area so there were fewer animal trails to follow –and the going got a lot slower. After over an hour of this we finally reached the bed of a river coming out of the mountains. This was much easier going although still hard work as the ground was pretty rough.
We weren’t quite sure which of the valleys ahead of us we wanted to walk up so we climbed a nearby ridge for a better view and had some great views of Caribou below us. A really impressive male with a massive rack was right below us – I don’t know how they lift their heads with that much antler on board.
We now knew where we wanted to go and started hiking up the valley following the meandering river. This meant that we had to keep hopping across the water which became deeper and faster flowing as we moved upstream. It had been nicely braided lower down.
I had chosen to wear my gore-tex hiking boots and gaiters which meant that I could walk straight through the water. However Sarah’s hiking boots aren’t waterproof s so we had to ford the river several times to avoid wet feet. This got harder and harder as we went upstream until eventually Sarah had to change shoes into sandals she had brought for this purpose on every crossing. I didn’t envy this as the water was VERY COLD.
On entering the valley a huge bird circled above us – our first golden eagle – unfortunately it was raining at the time so no pictures.
The weather in Denali is the most changeable I have ever seen. We had sun, rain, wind, overcast and even snow in alternating waves over the course of the day. Mostly it was pretty cold though as we were quite high up.
We eventually reached the end of the valley where the river entered a gorge we couldn’t hike round but there was a very nice flat grassy area which was perfect for camping. We set up the tent and set about dinner (siting our kitchen the approved 100 metres downwind of the tent). We ate some lovely freeze dried food (actually surprisingly good) and hit the sack pretty early as were both tired. Of course before retiring for the night we put our BRFC 100 metres downwind of the tent and 100m from the cooking area.
I slept very soundly despite some rain in the night and awoke refreshed the next morning (not sure Sarah would say the same). After cooking breakfast of freeze dried scrambled egg and bacon we packed up the camp and set off again.
We had decided to hike down the river right back to where it meets the East Fork of the Toklat river and back to the road there. This was about 5k or so West of where we had started the previous day.
The walk was pretty uneventful until near the end. We didn’t see much wildlife but we did see a lot of tracks including caribou, Bear and Wolf.
As we approached the end the volume of water in the river increased and it became much deeper and wider. Sarah had to change into her Sandals a number of times and I had to jump through the river as the water was much deeper than the top of my boots – I found if I moved quickly the gaiters would keep my boots dry. We must have crossed deep water about 5 times.
Right near the end we were walking past some brush and we could see the road where three camper buses were stopped. Everyone in them was looking right at us which we thought was a bit strange but we carried on.
When we got back to the road we were faced with our last challenge which was a 25m high near vertical bank to climb to the road – or a very deep (waist deep) river to cross to get to a gently sloping incline back to the road. We choose the bank and managed to climb it helping each other and using brush to pull ourselves up.
On reaching the road we scanned the area where we had just been and saw a Grizzly Bear right by where we had walked. We now know what the buses were looking at. We must have walked within 5m of him and never realised.
While waiting for a bus to take us home we saw an arctic fox cross the river we had been too chicken to cross. He swam the first part and then across the second he took a massive leap almost as high as long to g et across – very impressive.
The first two buses that came past were full but luckily some people got off the third one that came past – we didn’t tell them that they’d be stuck there without climbing down the really steep bank coz by this time we had waited over an hour and were getting quite cold (sorry guys!) – so we got on.
The trip back was also full of wildlife – 2 grizzlies, some caribou, Dall Sheep and Moose.
We got back to the Beast knackered and very dirty but having thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Even Sarah admitted that she would go camping again – although she did caveat it by saying preferably in warmer weather.
We decided to leave the Park after our hike and began the drive back South intending to find a place to free camp fairly close by but as we drove away the clouds began to clear. We hit Broad Pass and amazingly we actually saw Mount McKinley. We couldn’t believe it after so many days around this area where the clouds had never lifted. So we immediately resolved to drive South to get a better view and ended up camping at the Official North Denali Viewpoint on Parks Highway.